A Grammar of Conversion

Nov 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

There were all kinds of Catholic doctrines that I already believed before coming into full communion with the Catholic Church. These include the doctrine of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the full deity and full humanity of the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible. The similarities between some of my own beliefs and some of the putatively infallible teachings of the Catholic Church rendered me better disposed to admit that there is truth and goodness in that Church, which was otherwise so strange. I even drew some consolation from the fact that many of my most cherished and firmly held convictions were sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Newman's desk in the Birmingham Oratory

I did not become Catholic by way of jettisoning all of the beliefs that I held as a Protestant, and then adopting some of them all over again as a Catholic. It might be imagined that such intellectual discontinuity is part and parcel of genuine or thorough conversion. In fact, it is simply unreal. Rather than a faked-up mental re-boot, I went through a long process of discovering that many of my core beliefs, as beliefs (i.e., in the sense of the assent of faith, over and above the assent of opinion), implicitly rested upon the premise that the Catholic Church is what she says she is. The full and conscious acceptance of this fact involved more than an extra boost of confidence in my already existing beliefs or opinions. Conversion to the Catholic Church involved admitting that the task of defining orthodox doctrine which is to be received with faith had not been entrusted to me, but to the Church that Christ founded.

The largely intellectual process whereby I came towards Catholicism was at first a matter of evaluating particular propositions in the light of already received (if not properly grounded) principles. Though not easy, this process of evaluating specific Catholic teachings was much less daunting than the prospect of submitting to the infallible teaching authority of the Catholic Church, which is a further principle, and one entirely beyond my control. I lost most of my specifically Protestant beliefs and acquired many Catholic beliefs (which I at least held as opinions), long before I was received into the Catholic Church. For years, I held back because my most fundamental Protestant habit could not be shaken–I was addicted to autonomy. I wanted the Bible, the Church, liturgy, history, and everything else on my own terms. The Catholic Church’s living and visible teaching authority made me angry (who are they to tell me), resentful (my Church is every bit as valid as your Church), and a little afraid (maybe the Catholic claims are true, and I will have to submit after all).

John Henry Newman wrote that the “restless intellect of our common humanity is utterly weighed down” by the authority of the Catholic Church. This is true. But that great man went on to write that “the energy of the human intellect … thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely fashioned weapon, and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown.” This is also true. Catholicism, in principle, provides for knowledge of every kind of truth, not only revealed truth, in a way that is superior to all other systems of thought, because the Church compels us to see the truth in its fullest possible context this side of eternity. (Newman argues this point in his Third Discourse on University Teaching. See especially the concluding section.) That context is fashioned, in part, by the gift of ecclesial infallibility, whereby personal opinion is opened to the certainty of faith, and faith opens upon understanding. Catholic converts lose the principle of private judgment, but gain the purpose of private judgment. This might be an application of Matthew 10:39.

This is all rather abstract. I say nothing of the desires and loves that stirred in my heart, severally connected with the intellectual process of conversion. The Catholic Church is so much more than an infallible teaching mechanism. She is the Body of Christ, enduring undivided through the tumultuous ages. When I finally became convinced of this fact, there was nothing else to do but to be received into full communion with the Holy Catholic Church by solemn profession of faith, receiving the sacraments of Chrismation and the Holy Eucharist according to the Byzantine Rite in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. I have referred to this moment, occuring just before the beginning of Great Lent in 2008, as an end and a beginning, which description is true but incomplete. It is also a continuation along the path upon which my feet were set on Easter Day in 1982 when I was baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[Update: Clarification on the title of this post]

“A grammar of conversion” might suggest that I was attempting to delineate the principles by which all conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism are regulated. Such was not my intention. I do believe that the things I wrote are true, hence, applicable in some way to every possible conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. However, every path to conversion is unique. In some ways a conversion story is like a private language. What I intended by this “grammar” was to articulate some of the general rules by which my own private language can, in retrospect, be understood. I am of course pleased to find that more than a few folks see a similar pattern to their own story. But I am equally pleased to find that some conversions are more like a “Eureka!” moment, and still others like something else.

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  1. Andrew,

    Thank you for articulating so well many of our “common thought processes”. As a Catholic convert and a female who truly loves Our Lord – I could not imagine Him, The Perfect Bridegroom, leaving His Bride in such a mess that she must go from place to place trying to find His Words of truth. That is not agape love.

    If Our Lord is The Annointed One, The King of Kings and Lord of Lords and His kingdom shall have no end – then it is not a “democracy”. A kingdom presupposes a King. I don’t vote for a King or who speaks for Him in abstentia. My King did not abdicate His throne, but He entrusted His Apostle, St. Peter with the keys and authority to bind and loosen.

    The “gospel” is not “good news” if your faith lies in your own “faith”. A large part of the gospel or good news is that He left a Church/Kingdom that the gates of Hades would not prevail against. They would try and seem to be winning at points in history…but over 2000 years later…..there she is….still standing and waiting for Her King and Bridegroom.
    Happy are those who are called to His feast…

    In the peace of Christ,
    Teri

  2. Hey Teri,

    One of the things that happens is that the “thought process” begins to take on a life of its own. There is so much to think about. But like Lewis said upon his conversion to theism: enough hemming and hawing, it is time that something was done. And of course he could also talk about the act of faith as something that just happened to him, wherein he was lifted up and placed in a new place.

  3. Is that an actual conversation that was held with a Protestant? Just curious.

    I like Teri’s comparison of the Church to a real Kingdom. There is a lot of talk of the Kingdom of God among us protestants, but very little thought of the literal, historical nature of the Kingdom of David – something Scott Hahn brought to light for me.

  4. Hey Michelle,

    Nah, that is more like a compilation of conversations with Protestants. Scott Hahn is the man. I could listen to him talk for hours and hours about Catholicism implicit in the Old Testament. In fact, most of his EWTN conversations are on my iPod.

  5. Thank you, Michelle, but I can’t take credit for it, of course :-) I listened to Dr. Hahn’s lectures as well, which by the way are excellent.

    But, the final moment of realization was listening to a Jewish Proffesor (not a convert) explain Judaic understanding in the different Jewish communities (Hassidic, reformed, etc.). It was so eye opening hearing him explain why the “Messiah” has not come and how they know from sacred scripture.

    Another eye opener was his explanation of the Canon of Sacred Scriptures (Our O.T.) and why the findings of The Dead Sea Scrolls was not “threatening” to this position.
    He even explained why the need to get rid of any Greek influence in the Sacred Writings was important after the fall of the temple and also after the last Roman squashing of Jewish Revolt.

    Not only is his idea of a Kingdom so obvious in The Church (of course he doesn’t get it), but it is even more obvious in another professor who is a Jewish Convert to the Catholic Church. Bryan mentions him, Professor Feingold.

    The Messiah – The “Annointed One” is quite literally a King….and we sometimes take that for granted as Christians when we say it.

    There are just too many times Our Lord speaks about the wedding feast and the entire idea of the Church as the Bride to get past that. It should never be thought of as “teams” almost like a rivalry, in Protestantism and even between Catholics and Protestants. We are not the Yankees and the Red Sox :-)

    As a woman, it is easier for me to see Our Lord as the beloved Bridegroom who laid down His life for me and would not leave me trying to find His truth interpreted correctly like Goldilocks and the three bears ….running frantically from place to place.

    If The LORD GOD speaks in the sacred scriptures of prophecy in the O.T. about finding his beloved Bride and caring for her even though she has gone after other “gods”, how would Our Lord not fulfill that prophecy? HE does perfectly. The Virgin daughter of Zion (Mary) bore the King and Savior, Our Lord, Jesus Christ, to redeem straying and unfaithful Israel and to our amazement, He included all of us as His Chosen Bride! This was done by “His own right arm”.

    I have loved Him all of my life, sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, more than others. I have no doubt that He is real and that He loves me. If He wanted to unite all Israel again together (Judah and the forgotten 10 other tribes), how could He be ok with a fractured Kingdom of gentile believers?

    Sorry to go on and on…Andrew may not allow the comment :-) But I know that as my Bridegroom He has promised not to allow anything to prevail against me as His Bride/Church. I have faith that all that He said is true….

    Blessings and peace in Christ,
    Teri

  6. To Michelle,

    I totally forgot to mention the book I am reading now – CTC’s own Taylor Marshall’s book
    “The Crucified Rabbi”

    Taylor’s book is filled with examples of Israel’s “Kingdom” compared to The Church. There is a link to it on the CTC website. Andrew could find it, I’m sure.

    In the peace of Christ,
    Teri

  7. Here’s the amazon link to Taylor’s book.

  8. Thanks! I’ve been very curious to read his book, too. I’ve listened to his podcasts on the Jewish nation to the Catholic church as well as his Paulcasts, and loved all of them!

  9. Wow! Andrew, you did this process great justice. I am still somewhere caught in the process, but I can completely acknowledge what you have said in the above article.

    The fact that there was a Catholic Faith already in place even if not in it’s fullest form, and then the specifically Protestant viewpoints flake away. It is undeniable. It happens slowly at first and then suddenly you see yourself moving to a place that you did not set out to navigate towards.

    You did summarize the intellectual processes quite well, and yet there is a great deal of emotion that is tied up in it as well… at least for me. I would love for one of you gents to attempt to describe that. In the end, I imagine that a surrender of the heart in some capacity finishes the journey. The mind can only take you to the banks, but the heart swims…

    Blessings in Christ,
    -g-

  10. Hey George. Good to hear from you. That is the way things often happen. Yeah, I did not say much about the feelings, the fear and doubt (though the latter was implied), nor about the strange, historical romanticism of the whole thing (unbroken and alive), nor the absolute comfort of the sacraments, though sometimes I come out feeling like I’ve been through the wash (dizzy but glad) and sometimes I am just plain tired and a little bored and have to just reckon that it is what it is regardless, and that is a kind of freedom (from myself). When I said a mystery, I meant it. None of this, so high above us (yet right here among us!), is cut-and-dry.

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